NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
In the San Jose Sharks organization, finishing is the name of the game.
The team wants to start this season the way they finished, with a fast-paced, efficient game, a playoff sweep of the Vancouver Canucks and a narrow Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Semifinals.
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If the Sharks can do that, they could be staring down a 10th consecutive postseason appearance, and perhaps the ultimate "finish" that has eluded the team during that decade of success: the Stanley Cup.
In hopes of scaling that final mountain, the organization implemented a "reset/refresh" philosophy at the trade deadline last season. The philosophy, which revolved around implementing a north/south, attacking style of play, was made possible by deadline trades for Raffi Torres and Scott Hannan, as well as the decision to move Brent Burns from defense to forward. Players who didn't fit the system -- among them Ryane Clowe, Michal Handzus and Douglas Murray -- were shipped out.
The new system paid dividends, as San Jose clinched a postseason appearance, swept the Canucks in the opening round and then pushed the Kings to the brink before falling in Game 7 of that series. This summer, general manager Doug Wilson added another piece to the puzzle with a draft-day deal for Tyler Kennedy, who is just the kind of fast, feisty forward San Jose needs.
"Our coaches are pretty excited to continue where we left off last year, and we have a clear view of how we want to play," Wilson told NHL.com prior to the start of training camp. "You know, that north/south attacking game. The players that we've added certainly fit that mold."
Wilson also locked franchise faces Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski into long-term contracts, with each player receiving five-year extensions. Couture echoed the organization's focus on the finish when asked about the state of the Sharks.
"We just have to continue this season the way we finished the year last year, from the deadline on to the playoffs,” Couture said. "I'm most looking forward to playing a full season with the team we have. … I'm excited to see how we do this season."
In addition to their bolstered attack, the Sharks possess one of the best, and youngest, defenses in the NHL, with even younger prospects coming soon. Add to the mix Antti Niemi, a first-time Vezina Trophy finalist last season, and the Sharks have the tools to mount another deep run into the postseason.
"I think our players are excited about the way we want to play," Wilson said. "If I was a player, that's how I'd want to play. I think there's kind of an energy and excitement around here of building on how we finished and how we played."
Midway through last season, the Sharks were in need of an offensive shake-up. The attack was stagnating and the Sharks, after starting the season 7-0-0, had slipped out of postseason contention. Wilson and coach Todd McLellan didn't hesitate to alter the status quo, shipping out three veterans at the trade deadline in order to implement the preferred north/south game plan.
The Sharks brought in Torres to add pace and bite to the attack, and Burns brought a physical edge and was surprisingly productive skating alongside Joe Thornton. In June, Wilson traded for Kennedy, a player used to scoring big goals playing alongside some of the League's biggest stars with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The fourth and final piece of the puzzle, according to Wilson, is 19-year-old Tomas Hertl. The 17th pick in the 2012 NHL Draft is primed to join the Sharks this season after leading HC Slavia Praha, in the Czech Extraliga, in scoring in 2012-13 despite being the youngest player on the team.
"This is a guy who's played in the World Juniors, he's played in a men's league against men for several years, he's played in the World Championship," Wilson said. "He's 6-foot-2, 210 [pounds] already. We saw him in our development camp and have very high expectations."
Wilson told NHL.com that all four additions will prove essential to the Sharks goal of getting offense from all four lines. What those lines will look like, however, remains up for debate.
With Marty Havlat starting the season on injured reserve and TJ Galiardi traded to the Calgary Flames this summer, there are two holes in the top six. McLellan told reporters he would not break up his productive duos of Couture-Patrick Marleau and Thornton-Burns, but both are in need of a third line mate. Pavelski, who will probably continue to center the third line as he did late in 2012-13, is also in need of production-minded wingers.
That's where Kennedy, Torres, Hertl and Tommy Wingels come in. All four are out to prove they deserve top-nine minutes and the battles will rage throughout training camp. Torres suffered an ACL injury during an incidental collision with Anaheim's Emerson Etem in San Jose's second preseason game, a knock which will likely see him miss six or more weeks of the regular season.
With the injury to Torres, who had been slated to join either the Couture or Pavelski line, the door opens for the Sharks to sign Anthony Stewart, who is in training camp on a professional tryout, or call on a top offensive prospect like Matthew Nieto or Freddie Hamilton. Both players have been building their resumes, Nieto at Boston University and Hamilton for Worcester (AHL), and have impressed thus far at training camp.
One reason the Sharks were so comfortable moving Burns, one of their best defensemen, to forward was the tremendous depth and youth San Jose enjoys on the blue line.
Four of San Jose's projected top-seven defensemen are 26 or younger, making up a unit that ranked among the League's best in goals allowed and penalty kill in 2012-13. The emerging leader of the unit, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, is becoming one of the NHL's finest shut-down defensemen at age 26. Vlasic joins his partner from last season, Justin Braun, also 26, in the top pairing. Vlasic and Braun will aim to recreate their postseason success, in which they combined to shut down the Sedin twins and then Anze Kopitar.
Matt Irwin, who got a chance when Burns moved to forward, joins veteran Dan Boyle in another pairing.
Hannan did enough in his short stint with San Jose to earn a one-year contract extension this summer and likely will anchor the third pairing with Brad Stuart or Jason Demers.
While these defensive pairings appear more or less locked in, the Sharks proved last season they are not afraid to shake things up. Luckily for them, they've got the prospect pool to do it. Matt Tennyson, Nick Petrecki and Taylor Doherty are all waiting in the wings and have shown in training camp they can jump right in.
"Our coach will play whoever fits what our needs are, and he's always looking for ingredients, and it could be different players at different times," Wilson said. "Todd has never had a hard time putting a young player not just in the lineup but in a role where he can succeed."
Antti Niemi is the unquestioned starter; now it's just a matter of who backs him up.
Niemi had his finest NHL season in 2012-13 (and his career includes a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010) and was rewarded with his first Vezina nomination. Niemi clocked more ice time (2,580:46) than any other goaltender, starting 43 of 48 regular-season games, and posted a 2.16 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.
The Sharks once again will rely heavily on Niemi this season, but in an 82-game season, the 30-year-old will need his share of rest. With last season's backup Thomas Greiss now with the Phoenix Coyotes, the Sharks are staging a training-camp battle for the backup spot with Alex Stalock and Harri Sateri.
"We feel that the competition between Harry and Alex is going to be decided by them on the ice, and we believe very strongly in both of them," Wilson said. "That competition will be one to watch, it will be played out certainly during training camp and exhibition games. [During a season] that's compressed during an Olympic year, you're going to need goaltending and goaltending depth, and that's important."
Stalock was considered the clear choice before Wilson and McLellan made comments pointing to a training camp battle. It's a competition both goalies know well: Stalock and Sateri split starts with Worcester, the team's American Hockey League affiliate, last season, with Stalock posting slightly better numbers.
Stalock is back to full health after almost a year spent recovering from a severed nerve behind his knee, an injury that occurred in February 2010. Wilson said Stalock's attitude during his recovery earned him a lot of plaudits from within the organization.
"He was not going to let that defeat him," Wilson said. "Nobody's going to outwork him, and the respect and admiration he earned for that is a big part of his make-up."
Author: Davis Harper | NHL.com Staff Writer